Unlisted & Unlimited: Graphene — the new wonder material

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IN THE 20th century, silicon was considered a wonder material, especially in the electronics industry. So much so that Silicon Valley, where the industry first started to flourish, got its name from it.

Taking over from germanium, which was expensive and difficult to produce, silicon was the base material for semiconductors used in computer circuits. It basically revolutionised the electronics industry.

Today, everyone is talking about graphene, a single-atom layer of graphite, first isolated in 2004, that is considered to be the strongest (200 times stronger than steel), thinnest and most stretchable crystal.

But just how strong is it? “To break graphene, you need to take a pen and pierce it in the middle. Then, take a huge elephant and put it on the pen,” jokes NanoMalaysia Bhd CEO Dr Rezal Khairi Ahmad.

“That will create the enormous amount of pressure needed to break graphene. Anything less than that, graphene will be able to support the weight.”

But strength isn’t its only virtue. Graphene is also the best conductor of heat and electricity known to man. These qualities give it the potential to replace silicon in circuitry.

The market for it is growing. According to BCC Research, a US-based technology market research company, the graphene market should start to take off in 2016, and reach US$675 million (RM2.3 billion) by 2020, with a compound annual growth rate of 58.7% from 2015 to 2020.

With such potential, it is no wonder that so many players are looking to jump on the bandwagon. The European Commission has announced an investment of €1 billion (RM4.3 billion) for graphene research and development over the next 10 years. The R&D is aimed at taking graphene out of research labs and into the marketplace.

One of the greatest challenges in commercialising graphene today is how to produce high-quality material on a large scale at low cost. The quality of graphene plays a crucial role as any defects, impurities, grain boundaries, multiple domains, structural disorders and wrinkles in the graphene sheet can affect its electronic and optical properties.

Much research has gone into finding newer and better ways to synthesise high-quality graphene in a more cost-effective way so that there can be widespread adoption for commercial applications. South Korean universities have been especially active in this space, accounting for six of the top 10 universities in terms of number of patents for graphene synthesis. The rest are from the US and China.

Although Malaysia is determined to be part of the game and has already formulated a National Graphene Action Plan (NGAP), it has not caused a stir,

either academically or in the graphene industry as a whole so far.

Rezal hopes this will change now that an action plan has been formulated. The plan sets out how the government intends to develop this industry.

He does not want what happened with biotech or silicon electronics to happen again. “In both of these industries, we were left behind,” he says.

Professor Abdul Rahman Mohamed, a professor of chemical engineering at Universiti Sains Malaysia, agrees. He has over 40 years’ experience working with nanomaterials and has been synthesising graphene for companies that want to conduct R&D on the material.

Abdul Rahman points out that while silicon was developed in the 1950s, it only arrived on our shores in the 1970s. By this time, it was already a “black box” type of industry. A black box refers to something that arrives already finished — it cannot be opened for someone to look inside to see how it works; you can only guess what its characteristics are.

“We only bought silicon and packaged it here in Malaysia, but we did not have the knowledge behind it,” Abdul Rahman says.

Malaysia is determined to do things differently this time around. “Graphene is still in the early stages and the world is trying to figure out what to do with it. So Malaysia can participate, and if done well, we may become a leader in some part of this field,” says Rezal.

“The country has been aspiring to become a leader in something. With the NGAP, it would allow us to be a leader in some parts of the graphene development.”

NanoMalaysia, a government agency that oversees nanotechnology, is responsible for spearheading this plan. It connects industry with the experts in graphene while opening up the space for international participation. Primarily, it gives priority to local experts to develop human capital and ensure that Malaysians participate.

In the NGAP, there is great emphasis on the short and medium term, in the hope that these initiatives will result in real economic benefits for the country. “We are looking at generating revenue of RM9 billion and creating 9,000 high-value jobs in this area by 2020. That is why the NGAP focuses on business opportunities rather than upstream R&D,” says Rezal.

Aside from NanoMalaysia, Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM) played a role in putting together the NGAP. AIM was set up to be the driving force behind the national innovation agenda.

“We want to create new wealth with graphene and the opportunities that come with it,” says AIM CEO Mark Rozario. “Many countries are excited about this. Some have poured billions into basic research. So, we thought we should look at what Malaysia can do in this space.”

AIM looked at what other countries and players were doing with graphene. There was a plethora of activity, from basic to applied research.

AIM made it clear that it wanted to explore downstream opportunities. “We are looking at downstream opportunities closer to commercialisation. We have engaged with all the stakeholders and have identified 28 areas,” Rozario says.  

AIM looked at the possibility of using graphene in those areas. From there, it identified the low-hanging fruit, or those that are closer to commercialisation.

Rozario says these are the areas in which Malaysia has a competitive advantage, either in terms of cost or technology.

“[In the end], we decided to narrow it down to five focus areas. But this does not mean anyone outside those areas cannot look into graphene. It is just that we are going to start with these five,” he adds.

The five focus areas are lithium-ion battery anodes and ultracapacitors, conductive inks, rubber additives, plastic additives and nanofluids.

These are highly specialised areas.

According to Rezal, they have the potential to be re-energised with the introduction of graphene. Also, by leveraging these areas, companies will be able to sell their graphene-innovated products using their current sales strategies and channels.

Take rubber additives for example. Malaysia is already a leading player in rubber products. With the use of graphene, we can expect stronger rubber gloves, condoms and tyres, he points out.

For the longest time, Malaysia has played at the lower end of the value chain. The NGAP, among others, is expected to change that. High-end products command premium prices and create high-value jobs, he adds.

Rezal says local players have taken the initiative to incorporate graphene into their products in four of the areas mentioned. These products have been tested and are showing promising results.

“Nanofluids and conductive inks are the easiest graphene applications that can be pushed into the market. We are talking about six months here, because the technology is quite mature. Plastic and rubber additives will take longer, say about 1 to 1½ years,” he adds.

Lithium-ion battery anodes are more complex and will take even longer. “They must go through testing, trials and certification before they can be pushed into the market,” says Rezal.

If this goes well, the country can expect to see RM3.8 billion to RM4.4 billion in potential revenue from rubber additives, RM500 million from plastic additives and roughly RM1 billion from conductive inks. It should also see RM1 billion in revenue from nanofluids and close to RM4 billion from lithium-ion battery anodes.

Rezal firmly believes that Malaysia can succeed in this venture. The key is to manage it properly. A major piece of the puzzle is the supply chain — sourcing affordable graphene in large quantities so the price of the raw  materials can go down as it achieves economies of scale.

Here, he is pinning his hopes on companies like Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd (FGV). A few months ago, FGV signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Cambridge Nanosystems in London. The former will provide the raw materials — basically crude palm oil by-products — while the latter will provide proprietary technology to produce carbon nanotubes.

The MoU includes a proposed acquisition of 70% of the issued share capital of Cambridge Nanosystems, which is incorporated in the UK, by FGV’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Felda Global Ventures Downstream Sdn Bhd.

Rezal says the end game will be if a local player can acquire the technology to produce graphene and take the technology back to Malaysia. If that happens, it would be able to supply local researchers and companies graphene at an attractive enough price point for graphene-related products to be deployed on a large scale.

Abdul Rahman says there are various ways to synthesise graphene today. On an industrial scale, the most popular is through chemical vapour deposition (CVD), a chemical process used to produce high-purity, high-performance graphene on a large scale.

In CVD, the feedstock is passed over a catalyst at high temperatures, resulting in graphene forming on the surface of the catalyst. On completion, the system is cooled and the catalyst is removed to separate the graphene.

For Malaysia, there is one advantage of using CVD. It uses methane and we have that in abundance, derived from the great quantities of palm oil waste products we have available.

“The difficulty is in controlling the number of layers. Sometimes, it doesn’t come up as one big piece. You may have a high surface area of graphene, but low quality in terms of uniformity. This is because some of them may have one or two layers, while others have five layers. It is not uniform graphene,” Abdul Rahman says.

There is also the matter of cost. CVD is quite expensive. There are cheaper ways of producing graphene, with the cheapest being the “scotch tape technique”. This involves placing a sample of graphite onto sticky tape and then folding and peeling the tape several times to create progressively thinner layers of graphite, which eventually leads to a single layer of carbon.

The downside is that it is a laborious process and is not practical for large-scale production. The scotch tape technique is one of the exfoliation methods where you start with mined graphite and separate the carbon layers using plasma, mechanical exfoliation and chemical techniques. This tends to produce lower quality graphene that could eventually be useful in anti-corrosion paints or battery electrodes.

The other method of producing graphene is known as epitaxial where you build graphene from the bottom up, one atom at a time. Epitaxial graphene is best suited for high-end electronics because it has the best electronic properties. Graphene synthesised this way has the potential for replacing silicon in the next generation of integrated circuits and ultra-fast high-performance electronic devices.

Basically, it’s about producing graphene affordably. “The production of graphene is not a problem. The problem lies in producing it so that it matches existing technology cost-effectively. That is why you need to find another way of producing graphene — a cheaper way,” Abdul Rahman says.

He believes the NGAP is important and the industry needs to get on board from the outset. “In science, we know what the requirements are. However, we are hoping the industry can tell us what types of graphene it wants because there are many types.”

The type of graphene one requires depends on its purpose. For the electronics industry, one or two layers of carbon is enough. Anything more would not be useful. For composite materials, graphene in the form of platelets (similar to blood platelets) would be preferable.

Graphene is currently not cost-effective compared with other materials. But Abdul Rahman expects the price to go down as the technologies for synthesising the wonder material mature. He compares it to carbon nanotubes, which in 2000 was around US$100 per gram. Today, it has gone down to RM10 per kg.

“This was because there was not enough knowledge and expertise to produce nanotubes. Today, many people know how to make it. The demand remains the same, but production methods have improved tremendously. The same thing will happen with graphene,” he asserts confidently.

That is why Malaysia should get into the game now. By the time costs come down, both academia and industry should be equipped with the requisite knowledge to not only manufacture graphene-related products, but to develop our own.

“Industry, academia and government must work together — that is the key. And for me, it is a win-win situation. Industry is supporting academia to do research, and the research that comes out of universities will be relevant to industry.

“Both are important. Of course, in academia we can do research on our own, but where do we go after that? What do we do with our products? Industry is a very useful partner for us,” Abdul Rahman says.

Will graphene become as important as silicon? Abdul Rahman says it will become even more so. It is expected to replace silicon because of its superior qualities, and its potential applications are almost limitless.

“Graphene will pave the way for other nanomaterials. Research is like that. Sometimes it takes 10 to 20 years before you can see the actual technology. Sometimes it is a platform; you are not making it for specific applications,” he says.

The National Nanotechnology Directorate Division (NND) has proposed graphene as one of its priority area on the nanotechnology road map. Abdul Rahman is spearheading a graphene consortium — a group of about 10 to 15 researchers — which has been set up under the NND.

Most of the researchers are from academia or public research institutes. They have been tasked with developing products based on graphene and are currently working on five projects — the synthesis of high-uniformity large-area graphene in ambient pressure CVD; large area graphene film fabrication and transfer process from exfoliated graphite; graphene nanocomposites as electrode materials for energy conversion devices; low band-gap energy nanocomposites as electrode materials for efficient visible-light photocatalysis in environmental cleaning and energy harvesting; and graphene-based pressure sensor platform for a continuous healthcare monitoring application.

For the first project, that is, the synthesis of high-uniformity large-area graphene in ambient pressure CVD, which will be led by Abdul Rahman himself, an innovative catalyst will be developed to produce large-area graphene through the conventional CVD under ambient conditions. This innovation will reduce the cost of production substantially.

After the graphene is produced, the sheets will be attached to the catalyst or substrate. It needs to be separated from the substrate before the graphene can be used.

The second project, led by Dr Suriani Abu Bakar of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, will focus on finding a suitable transfer method for separating pristine graphene from the catalyst and transferring it to the desired substrate without deteriorating its structure.

The third, led by Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Professor Madya Dr Abdul Malik Marwan Ali, is aimed at finding potential applications for graphene as electrode materials for energy conversion devices.

The fourth project, led by Monash University’s Dr Chai Siang Pao, is meant to explore the unique properties of graphene that can be used as a visible-light active photocatalyst for environmental cleaning and energy harvesting from the sun. And the fifth, led by Dr Lee Hing Wah of Mimos Bhd, will work on developing graphene-based sensors for healthcare monitoring.

Abdul Rahman says these projects were only approved recently, so most of them are still in the preliminary research stages. Despite this, some of the projects are already producing results.

“For example, the graphene-based photocatalyst shows promising results for conversion of carbon dioxide to methane under the irradiation from lower power energy-saving light bulbs,” he adds.

This article first appeared in Unlisted & Unlimited, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December  08 - 14, 2014.